Seeking gold-standard safety in a time of irrational fear

In times of financial fear people turn to gold, but it's not the safe haven many think, writes Don Pittis.

I recently visited one of Heather Reisman's Indigo stores and spotted a table of books. A sign on a stick labelled the collection "We're Doomed." As someone who keeps a close eye on doom-laden financial market outlooks, I was interested to see the fiction readers of 2010 have a similar obsession with disaster.

Ticking off the titles I had already read — The Road, Dies the Fire, A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Chrysalids, The Kraken Awakes, World War Z, War of the Worlds and many more — I discovered I had actually read most of them.

Now don't get me wrong, I do not keep freeze-dried food in the basement. I do not keep the station wagon loaded and ready for a run to the hills. I do not have a cabin in the woods stocked with guns to fight off the inevitable cannibals who'll be hunting for dinner if civilization collapses. I don't think I am a doom-monger. But taking the 1977 title Lucifer's Hammer to the till, I could hardly deny an affection for apocalyptic fiction.

It is absolutely certain that in times of financial fear people turn to gold. Gold is the freeze-dried food of finance.

And if Heather has a whole table, with a stick and a sign, I am evidently not alone.

The main reason that springs to mind is that we live in a time of fear. We feel unsafe. And by reading about doom, whether in financial columns by economist David Rosenberg or in apocalyptic fiction, we think to prepare ourselves against the worst and find ourselves a place of safety.

The trouble is that at such times, safety is hard to find. As contrarian billionaire George Soros told Reuters on Wednesday, "This is a period of great uncertainty, so nothing is very safe."

It is absolutely certain that in times of financial fear, people turn to gold. Gold is the freeze-dried food of finance. In the past I have discussed the pros and cons of investing in gold. And there definitely are cons.

But when everything else is looking bleak, gold looks very good.

This week the credible gold analysts GFMS predicted the metal could go as high as $1,300 US an ounce before the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Soros says gold is a bubble. And while it may go higher yet, "it's certainly not safe and it's not going to last forever."

Safe haven?

The trouble is that nothing is safe.

Canadians who have money continue to keep most of it in cash. Having been burnt once, they have got themselves in a state of terror over a new market decline, especially during the volatile month of September and the notorious month of October. But cash does not feel as secure as it once did.

This week Japan joined the rush to drive its currency down, selling yen into the market and buying U.S. dollars. It is part of a continuing battle as each country tries to boost its economy by making its currency, and thus its products, cheaper for other countries.

As I've insisted before, it can lead to a dangerous kind of trade war where everyone is bound to lose.

And that is just one more thing to be fearful about.

The trouble with fear is that it makes us irrational. It can make us run when we should stand, and freeze when we should step aside.

When markets are working well, they are rational, first and foremost. To be successful, they depend upon rationality.

I remember one of the Hong Kong tycoons telling me how much he and his fellow tycoons liked it when people ran in fear from the markets. Having watched the market go through its cycles, they knew that each period of irrational fear was just one more chance to get even richer by staying calm.

Gold investors require nerves of steel

But if you're tempted to pile your savings into bullion, remember this: If you buy gold you must never be calm until you have sold it.

Unlike stocks that will surely recover one day if you hold them long enough, gold is a short-term speculation rather than a long-term safe haven. As soon as you buy it, you must begin watching for the moment to sell.

Informed by reading apocalyptic fiction, I can give you a good reason why.

If the gloom does come to an end, if the world economy and its markets go into a sustained recovery, gold - as a speculative investment with no return - will inevitably plunge.

And what if the opposite happens? The only possibility other than an eventual recovery is a sustained and endless crash.

If the economy collapses into something much worse, if it goes down and down into some era of doom and world's-end as described in the books on Heather's table, if markets plunge forever and society falls with them, then gold will do you little good. All the "We're Doomed" books agree.

The apocalyptic equivalent of gold if the economy truly goes to pieces is … freeze-dried food.